COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (Gazette) The 984 graduates at the Air Force Academy Wednesday got an unedited introduction to the difficult world they now face as new officers.
The graduation's keynote speaker, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, told the group they will see battle soon. And they will be expected to win every fight.
"Your primary weapons system now is your attitude," Mattis said.
That's no surprise to the class of 2018, all of whom have spent the majority of their lives in a nation at war. But having war as a daily backdrop isn't enough to condition troops for how tough those fights can be when you're in the middle of them, Mattis said.
"Always be ready to fight and win," Mattis said. "There is no room for complacency."
The class of 2018 had to fight just to make it through four tough years at the academy.
When they arrived for basic training, the class was more than 1,200 strong. Over the years, 222 of them dropped out.
They're one of the smartest groups ever seen at the academy, making it through one of America's toughest colleges with an average GPA of 3.07.
Of the graduates, more than 500 are headed to aircrew jobs, with 417 set to pilot planes and 69 headed for drones.
They're the 60th academy graduating class and join what graduates call the "long blue line" of 50,689 graduates.
Proud parents packed the stands to cheer for the graduates.
Sue and Greg Pike were all smiles Wednesday as their son Ethan Pike left Falcon Stadium as one of the Air Force's newest second lieutenants.
"He has always wanted to fly, and he has always wanted to serve his country," Sue Pike said.
The parents echoed Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson's assertion during the ceremony that no cadet graduates on their own.
"He is a very independent young man, but we are his support system," Mrs. Pike said.
But the parents shied away from taking any credit.
"He wants to serve his country and make the world a safer place," Mrs. Pike said proudly. "He cares about other people."
Academy superintendent Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria also gave the newest graduates a vote of confidence, saying they'll "be ready to lead on day one."
The Air Force's top general, Gen. David Goldfein, told the cadets they'll have to hit the ground running. America has stepped up air campaigns in Syria and Afghanistan in a bid to bomb Islamic State and Taliban insurgents into remission.
"Many of you will face the ultimate test in war," Goldfein told the class.
But the specter of war didn't dim the day for the new lieutenants.
"It is completely unreal," said 2nd Lt. Alicia Neuman, who will tackle space operations as her first Air Force job.
"It feels like a dream," she said as the Air Force Thunderbirds flying team screamed overhead. "My heart is pounding."
Most past speakers have used their academy addresses to focus on wider national policies. Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush used the academy podium to roll out foreign policy proposals. Past defense secretaries have used the graduation speech to call for bigger budgets and new weapons.
He focused firmly on the cadets in front of him.
"Make the Air Force better every day you serve," he told them.
That focus got the attention of the graduates.
2nd Lt. Brandy Oliver said she was inspired by the defense secretary's speech.
"He definitely loves America, and he was the perfect speaker."
Oliver and her classmates eagerly embraced their new roles after the ceremony, quickly replacing their cadet rank with second lieutenant's bars before they left Falcon Stadium.
"It feels amazing," Oliver said. "I can't even begin to describe how it feels."